As one might expect with a case stemming from a complaint over parking accommodations that resulted in the threat of disciplinary charges for University of Georgia (UGA) student Jacob Lovell, much of the public’s reaction to UGA’s behavior has been along the lines of: really? As in, UGA really thought Lovell’s e-mail constituted a threat?
See Washington Post blogger Valerie Strauss, who opens with:
Put this in the "what-were-they-thinking" category.
And closes with:
The case was closed. But why was it ever opened?
Similarly, Becca Nadler, blogging for Saxaspeak (a blogging arm of the Georgetown University paper The Hoya) begins:
I’m not sure I can adequately describe my reaction upon hearing about what happened to this University of Georgia student. It was probably something like "Huh?"
Indeed, it’s hard to mistake UGA’s charges of "disorderly conduct" and "disruption" for anything less than an almost comical overreaction to a flippant e-mail. Several point out the many, better ways UGA could have dealt with this e-mail. Little surprise, then, that UGA quickly reversed course (after FIRE publicized the case) and cleared Lovell of any charges. The Athens Banner-Herald, for instance, says that "Parking Services should have saved itself, and the university, some unnecessary media attention by simply e-mailing Lovell with their thanks for his observation, and a promise to take his concerns under advisement." (See also the Banner-Herald’s coverage here.)
Others make the point that Lovell needn’t have cursed in his e-mail. Atlanta Journal-Constitution blogger Maureen Downey posits that Lovell "doesn’t subscribe to the old adage about getting better results with honey than the F-bomb." Lovell himself freely says in the UGA paper The Red & Black that the e-mail was "not exactly adult." (But, then again, neither are some college administrators.)
Importantly, the Red & Black gives an interesting—and worrying—glimpse into the speech code culture in place at UGA and how it may have primed the university to react the way it did:
Tom Jackson, vice president of public affairs, said he understood the e-mail was forwarded to judicial affairs because of the profanity.
"While it might not be an issue appropriately regulated by a conduct code, the use of profanity in public is troubling to many, and may not be beneficial for an educated student," Jackson said.
FIRE’s Adam Kissel has this in response:
Kissel said the University’s allegation that Lovell’s e-mail was threatening "minimized a true threat."
"Even though this case might seem humorous, it illustrates a deeper issue for the University," he said. "Students and others complain about parking services all the time, but nobody calls the police on them."
The Washington Examiner‘s J.P. Freire was able to reach UGA Associate Dean of Students Kimberly Ellis, who sheds even further insight on UGA’s mechanisms:
I called Ellis because I was curious as to how she responds to such a case. She should get an award for taking my call, because most college administrators send me to the voicemail of the World’s Most Inept University Spokesmen. Ellis was instead happy to clarify what her letter entailed.
She explained that many of the cases on campuses "proceed with no action." Ellis gets police reports about everything that happens with UGA students, from speeding to "underage possession of alcohol." The point is, "if someone feels threatened, if these are real or implied threats, that’s going to push it through." Ellis sent Lovell a letter saying that if the student didn’t make a "disciplinary appointment," his record would be "flagged" rendering him unable to add, drop, or register for classes.
The problem, of course, is that feeling threatened is different than being threatened. College campuses all over the country will go after students who behave in a manner that may make others feel threatened – but that could include feeling ideologically threatened. And heck – the person who checks this email is anonymous, so it’s more likely that the email was sent out of offense and/or spite rather than feeling genuinely threatened.
Freire is absolutely right on this count, which is why FIRE continues to watch UGA and will continue to counsel the university to rid itself of its unconstitutional speech codes.
A final note here: I’m pleased to see that at least most of those covering this case demonstrate little trouble recognizing UGA’s overreaction and the protected nature of Lovell’s e-mail, even if they found it rude. One remark from the Banner-Herald, however, deserves attention, for saying that
FIRE should have declined any involvement in the issue. Is defending a profane e-mail really the sort of badge of honor that it wants, and that will ensure that it’s taken seriously?
Answer: Yes! The Banner-Herald, a newspaper after all, shouldn’t need an explanation that profanity—in large part—is no less protected under the First Amendment than is the Queen’s English. After all, there is no need for a First Amendment if we intend only to protect popular speech—it is precisely unpopular or "offensive" speech that needs protection. The Supreme Court made this clear with its landmark opinion in Cohen v. California when it declared that "one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric." In that case, the Court overturned the conviction of a man who protested the Vietnam war by wearing a jacket bearing the words "F*** the Draft" in a courthouse. Would this man have turned as many heads if his jacket politely stated his preference for not having a draft? Of course not. Profanity is broadly unnecessary, which is exactly why people use it: to drive home the passion and emotion behind their messages. (I could also flip the Banner-Herald‘s question and ask if punishing rude e-mails is the sort of "badge of honor" UGA wants, and point them to Robert’s excellent post explaining why this should be unattractive to them.)
If the Banner-Herald isn’t swayed by this appeal to principle, I point them to the case of Isaac Rosenbloom at Hinds Community College, who was thrown out of class and lost his financial aid after swearing once after class while in the vicinity of his teacher. With FIRE’s help, Rosenbloom got his punishment—for "flagrant disrespect"—reversed and his financial aid restored, and he can continue his training at HCC to become a paramedic. While few may take a churlish comment about parking too seriously, the ability to complete one’s education is something to take very seriously. It’s just one of the reasons why we defended Lovell, and would do so again.